French rev­o­lu­tions

A bike, a pic­turesque canal in the Loire Val­ley and a barge prove to be a per­fect com­bi­na­tion, writes Michael Ge­bicki

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

IAM pre­tend­ing to fish. I have bor­rowed a rod that seems to stretch half­way across the canal where I am sit­ting and the fish­er­man who lent it to me while he went to the bar for an aper­i­tif said that I might catch une carpe . I hope I don’t, and I’m do­ing my best not to. Min­i­mal ac­tiv­ity is re­quired but mock fish­ing gives me a rea­son to sit in this lus­cious place.

Ev­ery now and again I jig­gle the rod and the float bobs, frac­tur­ing the re­flec­tions of Men­e­treol-sousSancerre on the far bank and send­ing stone houses, an arched bridge and sev­eral moored house­boats off on a wob­bly, wa­ter­borne jour­ney.

I’m on a barge trip through the Loire Val­ley, from Plagny to Rogny, a foot­loose, gypsy voy­age straight from The Wind in the Wil­lows. It’s mess­ing about in boats el­e­vated to an art form, with wine from the vine­yards, ripe cheeses, the smell of fresh baguettes in the morn­ing and the mid­sum­mer glo­ries of mid­dle France pass­ing in slow mo­tion along both banks. I feel like Ratty in a beret.

There is also a se­ri­ous side to this trip. Ar­ranged in a line on the far side of Anna Maria IV, the barge that is my tem­po­rary home, is a line of bi­cy­cles. Ev­ery morn­ing af­ter break­fast, Henk, our cy­cle guide, musters us to­gether and we swing our legs over and pedal off to ex­plore some scrump­tious bit of la belle France —a mar­ket, a church, a wine cel­lar, a chateau or per­haps all of the above — while the barge put­ters along to an­other vil­lage where we ren­dezvous in late af­ter­noon.

I’m trav­el­ling with my elder daugh­ter, Camilla. It’s a good­bye trip. She’ll spend the next six months work­ing and study­ing in Paris. It’s an op­por­tu­nity to get her used to for­eign foibles and im­part some of my own suave wis­dom, and it’s work­ing like a charm. So far, she has learned that in France she can light up a cig­a­rette any­where and any­time, she can carry a small dog tucked inside her coat with its head stick­ing out and that it’s per­fectly OK to shunt other cars back and forth with your bumpers to squeeze into a park­ing spot. Th­ese will stand her in good stead if she de­cides to take up smok­ing or ac­quire a dog or a car. And we’re get­ting close. A lit­tle closer than we’d like, per­haps. Quar­ters on the barge are squishy, and if one of us wants to so much as floss, the other must lie qui­etly on their bunk.

On board the Anna Maria is a UN of the pale-skinned races: sev­eral Ger­mans, two Brits, a Bel­gian and an Amer­i­can cou­ple. There are also the Ital­ians, three keen fe­male cy­clists from Turin. The Ital­ians al­ways look great. They have cool sun­glasses and chic footwear, natty cy­cling gloves and mod­ish Ly­cra. Af­ter din­ner, they find the best bars. In the sad­dle, they climb in some whale of a gear at least two clicks higher than the one I am in, main­tain­ing an an­i­mated con­ver­sa­tion that in­volves lots of hand ges­tures as they grind past me. They also smoke, lan­guidly and of­ten.

In the mid­dle of the first day’s cy­cling we stop at Apre­mont-sur-Al­lier, one of the most beau­ti­ful vil­lages in France, the sign at the en­trance to the vil­lage boasts, not that you need telling.

In the Mid­dle Ages, the quar­ries of Apre­mont pro­vided stone for some of France’s ar­chi­tec­tural glo­ries, such as Sainte-Croix Cathe­dral in Or­leans. Be­tween the world wars, two civic-minded in­di­vid­u­als de­cided to re-cre­ate the vil­lage, re­mov­ing all the un­sightly bits and re­con­struct­ing its dwellings in toast- coloured stone. Sea­soned by the in­ter­ven­ing years, Apre­mont to­day is a pint-sized de­light and a favourite with lo­cal painters, a rus­ti­cated con­fec­tion of cot­tages with chim­neys and wis­te­ria-cov­ered tow­ers, with the broad Al­lier nib­bling at its banks.

Ris­ing above the town to­wards its hill­top chateau is the Parc Flo­ral, a flowery ex­trav­a­ganza built around a se­ries of ponds with a wa­ter­fall and some ginger­bread build­ings. It’s na­ture on steroids, buffed and man­i­cured to max­i­mum ef­fect. Since I am sus­cep­ti­ble to gooey ex­cess, I am drool­ing in an em­bar­rass­ing way and stop­ping ev­ery few paces to snap an­other photo, so Camilla aban­dons me and wan­ders off along the lake to­wards the Turk­ish pavil­ion.

Henk likes the trees best. It’s un­usual to see old, big trees in the coun­try­side in Europe, he tells me. Most were cut down when fuel sup­plies ran low dur­ing the war. The win­ter of 1944-45 was es­pe­cially harsh.

Sev­eral times we come across mar­kets in the towns we visit, and a French town on mar­ket day is an in­struc­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. At Chatil­lon-Coligny (pop. 1939), a street 200m long is lined with stalls sell­ing roasted chick­ens, fish, veg­eta­bles glis­ten­ing with dewy fresh­ness, freck­led pears blushed with pink, fungi still smelling of dark woods and honey-sweet white nec­tarines. Ev­ery French shop­per seems to have an in­tense per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with their butcher, baker, veg­etable man and poul­try pur­veyor, which makes their shop­ping ex­cur­sions a pro­tracted af­fair.

I’ve bought ve­hi­cles in less time than it can take a French house­wife to buy a bunch of pars­ley. Cheese is es­pe­cially cru­cial. At the mar­ket this day there are two

wag­ons sell­ing noth­ing but Re­blo­chon and Port-sa­lut, ro­que­fort and Pont-l’Eveque, molten bries and chevre.

There are ran­dom sur­prises all along the way. When we stop in the mid­dle of nowhere there are black­berry bushes bowed down with knob­bly fruit. One af­ter­noon we hire ca­noes and pad­dle down the Loire, be­gin­ning in the shadow of a nu­clear power plant. On the evening when we berth at La Charite I head off for a swim and go whizzing down some rapids, caught in the cur­rent.

There are long, snoozy lunches ly­ing on the grass in church­yards and evening walks through vil­lages. Late one af­ter­noon we stop at a chateau where a card­board sign an­nounces a wine tast­ing of pouilly fume. It’s fuller and softer than the sancerre I’ve been drink­ing, with a hint of goose­berry and a trace of the smoky flavours im­plied in the name. It’s j6 ($10) a bot­tle. I buy two, which is as much as I can carry. De­spite a bla­tant at­tempt at bribery, Camilla re­fuses to take an­other bot­tle in her sad­dle­bags.

The roads we cy­cle are mostly mi­nor paved coun­try lanes, the dis­tances any­thing from 25km to 50km in a day, The pace is mod­est for the most part. The only chal­leng­ing ride is the quad-burn­ing climb to the hill­top vil­lage of Sancerre. This is the spir­i­tual home of sauvi­gnon blanc and the vil­lage is well sup­plied with wine shops sell­ing the fa­mous wine to which it gives its name. On the other side of the town we spi­ral down­hill in a free­wheel­ing slalom, wind rush­ing through our hair, scenery blur­ring and spokes singing in a taste of two-wheeled heaven.

The stal­wart Anna Maria IV is all things to us: a float­ing ho­tel, a restau­rant and source of cheer, en­ter­tain­ment and lo­cal knowl­edge. In charge is an ami­able and ex­ceed­ingly hand­some young Dutch cou­ple, Martijn and Mar­jorie, who dish out tooth­some treats and cof­fee when we re­turn sad­dle­sore. It’s also ex­cep­tional value. In­clud­ing the coach trans­fers from Gare du Nord in Paris plus our bikes, guide, lodg­ing and break­fast, lunch and din­ner, the cost is about $200 a day, which is as­ton­ish­ing for Europe in high sum­mer.

‘‘ We some­times have a bon­fire here,’’ says Martijn, on the night that we moor at Bri­are. We’re out­side the town, amid green fields. Af­ter din­ner, we set off in search of wood. I head off down an em­bank­ment, past some houses and into a wood­land that has re­cently been cleared, still strewn with felled trees. Two of the Ger­mans fol­low me, ex­claim­ing in de­light at this mother lode of com­bustible veg­e­ta­tion. Mean­while, the Brits and the Amer­i­cans dis­ap­pear in the di­rec­tion of the river. They re­turn quite some time later drag­ging a large tree stump over which they stand like hunters, pant­ing and grin­ning. Af­ter a half hour of en­thu­si­as­tic gath­er­ing it’s quite a pile. De­spite a strong wind and spat­ter­ing rain, Mike, who shows a sur­pris­ing in­cli­na­tion to­wards py­ro­ma­nia for a re­tired sci­en­tist, coaxes the wood alight. In no time it’s a roar­ing in­ferno.

Martijn ap­pears, a lit­tle con­cerned that the 3m flame leap­ing into the night sky may at­tract at­ten­tion. More wor­ry­ing still are the em­bers that are show­er­ing in the di­rec­tion of his boat. Mar­jorie scoops a cou­ple of buck­ets from the canal and puts them close. ‘‘ I think we’d bet­ter leave it alone now,’’ says Martijn, just as Mike is about to heave the tro­phy stump on to the blaze. We go to bed soon af­ter, smelling of smoke and ter­ri­bly happy.

The French be­gan con­struct­ing canals late in the 16th cen­tury to cre­ate a heavy-duty haulage sys­tem for car­goes of pri­mary pro­duce. By the time they fin­ished 200 years later the slen­der brown cap­il­lar­ies of the canal net­work mea­sured al­most 9000km.

Barges could travel from the At­lantic to the Mediter­ranean with­out leav­ing France, de­liver fire­wood to Paris and wine to Ger­many. The French canals still have a blue-col­lar func­tion. Com­po­nents of the Air­bus A380, which has just made its de­but, were trans­ported to the as­sem­bly plant in Toulouse by barge. Those same canals have been hap­pily adopted by wa­ter gyp­sies look­ing for a week or two, or even a bob­bing re­tire­ment home, amid the rus­tic glo­ries of the real France.

One day, in­stead of ped­alling, I stay on board. It’s the sec­tion from Bri­are to Rogny. It be­gins with the Bri­are Aqueduct, a 662m metal trough that al­lows barges on the Canal Lat­eral to pass over the Loire River, and a won­der of late 19th-cen­tury en­gi­neer­ing.

Be­yond we take the Bri­are Canal, one of the old­est in France, link­ing the Loire with the Seine. For the first half of the day, the locks lift us up, for the sec­ond half it’s down.

We pass through 14 locks that day, some so close that I leave the barge, stroll along the bank for a kilo­me­tre or so and wait for the barge to catch up. At the stately pace of 6km/ h we glide past fields of sun­flow­ers and be­tween av­enues of plane trees that lad­der the wa­ter with their shad­ows.

Late in the af­ter­noon we pass four el­derly men in a skiff, three with wal­rus mous­taches, sit­ting around a ta­ble scat­ted with baguette, cheese and wine. They raise their glasses in

Pic­ture: Michael Ge­bicki

Slow boat to Rogny: The pace of life aboard a canal barge is leisurely, with plenty of time to ex­plore the pic­turesque vil­lages of the Loire Val­ley, visit lo­cal mar­kets and savour the re­gion’s lus­cious food and wine

Pic­ture: Michael Ge­bicki

Wheels and deals: From barge to bike along the canals of the Loire Val­ley

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